What’s the one date in the year you’d want to book off work? Here in the far north of Britain, the week just gone has been one of the best of the autumn. No great surprise there – some of the rarest autumn migrants in recent years have appeared in the second half of October – though what is surprising is that while Shetland almost disappears under the weight of visiting birders and tour groups in late September and early October, by the end of the month there are none left, even on Fair Isle. Apart from those chartering planes and boats that is. In the past ten years, 23rd October has produced Siberian Rubythroat and Rufous-tailed Robin on Fair Isle so if I had to pick one date in the year to be on the magic isle, that would be a reasonable one. This year, I had five days on Fair Isle in late October, and 23rd was my last full day. Would it deliver?
The trip coincided with a spell of unusually pleasant weather, generally sunny with light and variable winds. There were plenty of migrants during my stay, although turnover was more limited than ideal. Nonetheless, you can’t really complain when every day you can see a Lanceolated Warbler and multiple Olive-backed Pipits (part of an exceptional arrival throughout Shetland this year), good numbers of thrushes, Bramblings and Snow Buntings, and a wide variety of decent birds local birds, such as Woodlark, Goldfinch, Yellow-browed Warbler and so on.
By lunchtime on October 23rd 2012 I’d seen a variety of the birds mentioned above and spent some time photographing redpolls, including a stonking pale northwestern bird:
I had a text from Rob Fray in Shetland saying: “are you still on Fair Isle? Apparently there’s a Little Bunting near Sheila Fowlie’s.” Sheila lives at Virkie, just along the road from us. Nice bird, but not too gripping. And so, by 5.30 pm, when the light was beginning to go, it looked like 2012 wasn’t going to be a vintage October the 23rd. And then…
Fair Isle resident (and ex-obs warden) Nick Riddiford peered out of his living-room window at the gathering dusk and BOOOM! Siberian Rubythroat! We were there in minutes, but still not quickly enough. The light ebbed away fast, and the rubythroat played shy. October 23rd had delivered – again – but it hadn’t been quite the day I had played out in my head. Plans for a dawn start (in other words, who was going to get up early and make the bacon sarnies) were made. But as the evening wore on, another story developed. The one photo of the Virkie Little Bunting that had been posted on the net was causing more than usual scrutiny. Some were saying it was Britain’s second Chestnut-eared Bunting. I must admit that, from that one photo, I couldn’t see how Little Bunting could be ruled out, so I went to bed thinking that the biggest bird of the day was in Nick’s garden at Schoolton.
Dawn on October 24th. We were at Schoolton, the rubythroat was not… To add insult to injury, those of us who started looking for it elsewhere were gripped off by those who went in for tea and hospitality, and were rewarded with… a Blue Tit. Which, unlike Siberian Rubythroat, would have been a Fair Isle tick for me. Meanwhile, news came through from Shetland: the Virkie bunting was a Chestnut-eared! Boom! Suddenly, October 23rd was looking an even more stellar date, and now there was a decision to make – stay on Fair Isle and look for the missing rubythroat (and the pesky Parid) or leave as planned and go and see a second for Britain a stone’s throw from home? Daddy or chips, which to choose. Neither was a tick but in the end I opted to catch my flight as planned. The plane was delayed, which gave me more time to look for the Fair Isle birds, but by the time I left there was still no sign of the ‘throat and as for the Blue Tit… I don’t want to talk about it.
And so, by 2.00, I was back on home turf, and soon had views of Britain’s second Chestnut-eared Bunting. A fabulous little bird. No consolation to the two people who saw it the previous day that by now it was much more obliging. We all make those same mistakes – a skulky bird, brief views, too much time looking through your camera rather than your bins – they just get magnified when it’s a second for Britain, and there’s nothing you can say to ease the pain. Hopefully the forthcoming write-ups in the birding rags will present a suitably balanced picture. Go find a first, guys – and they probably will. All that aside, 23rd October had delivered once again, big style.
Almost forgotten in the melee, another great bird had been found on 23rd October, when Gary Bell came across a Pied Wheatear at nearby Quendale. That bird had, like the rubythroat, disappeared soon after being found but after an hour watching the CEB, I went off to Quendale to have a look for the wheatear with Will Miles and Jason Moss, who had come out of Fair Isle with me to see the bunting. Quendale was devoid of rare wheatears though and, with the light failing, we set off back to our house. All the bunting watchers had packed up too as we drove past Sheila’s. But suddenly, flying alongside the car, was a strikingly dark wheatear, with a very white tail! I hit the brakes, the bird flicked across in front of us and there, perched up on the fence of our neighbour’s house was… a very smart male Pied Wheatear! Sensational. It was nearly dark, and Jason hasn’t got a fancy camera so the pics are not exactly frame fillers, but he did better than I did. Chestnut-eared Bunting and Pied Wheatear, both within 400 m of my front door – that’s the nearest I can get to Jochen’s post about garden birds.
The bunting spent one more day along the Eastshore road – it presumably decided that it could do better than the howling northerlies and snow that arrived overnight on 25th/26th. The Rubythroat reappeared on Fair Isle, and both Will and Jason got to see it. (Thanks to David Parnaby for the pic below.)
By the weekend, things looked to be settling down once again, but October proved to have one last day of magic left. Sunday 28th October, Paul Harvey and I were having a thrash round a few of our favourite spots, focusing on weedy areas that might offer up a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. Tree Sparrow, Lapland Bunting, Goldfinch – all nice birds in Shetland but not quite what we were looking for. We never did find any snowballs, but we did manage to stumble across a rather more unexpected seed-eater in with the sparrows at Brake:
The same day, Geoff and Donna Atherton reported a Buff-bellied Pipit on Foula. Two American passerines in a day, just to balance up all the eastern stuff from earlier in the week. Fabulous.
So there we are. 23rd October is MY favourite date in the birding calendar. All you frontier birders out there, you need to weigh up the potential rewards of coming to Shetland later than tradition has it that you should. Me, I know where I’m going to be on 23rd October next year. I’m already booked in on Fair Isle. Maybe see you there. I fancy a rare accentor…